Sunday, July 6, 2014

When Art and Science Collide

It was late May of 1977 and I was sitting in a dark theater back when theaters were crowded with lots of movie fans out to see the latest and greatest. We were magically transported to a galaxy far away. Who can forget that masterfully crafted opening scene above a blue planet as a trading ship is pursued by Darth Vaders’s Imperial Cruiser. The imagery was breathtaking as the movie creators used perspective to reveal what appeared to be a large vessel being dwarfed by the truly immense Cruiser. OMG I thought what a monster that cruiser was.

George Lucas let us bask in the immensity of the Imperial Cruiser for a scene or two while Carrie Fisher hid the plans to a mysterious space station called the “Death Star” in the cute little droid R2D2 who along with his bungling robotic buddy C-3PO go off on an adventure of their own after Princess Leia is captured. We get to meet Luke Skywalker and Hans Solo as the rebel alliance is gathered together. But you know this story already. Today, I want to tell you why, when the Death Star blew up Alderaan creating a great rift in the force, instead of being horrified by it all, I was lost in a paroxysm of badly suppressed laughter.

You may remember the fateful words Peter Cushing eloquently spoke as Grand Moff Tarkin to the awaiting Death Star Gunners. "You may fire when ready.” Next came the primary ignition sequence of the Death Star's superlaser with the activation of a few levers and buttons - the controls to the powerful weapon that were about to cause the destruction of Alderaan. As the buttons were being pushed, green tubes of laser light formed at the apex of the large parabolic dish in the side of the Death Star. Levers were being moved. WHAT! Let me see those levers again. OMG, that wasn’t a superlaser controller, I know what that is, I have even used levers like that. The controls that were shown in the movie that operated the Death Star's powerful superlaser were actually an ISI/Grass Valley Switcher commonly used during the 1970's in video facilities such as television stations.

In fact, a couple of years before we had recently installed a Grass Valley switcher in the production control room at WIS-TV. That image completely took me off guard. My irreverent mind came up with the thought that “Darth Vader just faded Alderaan to black with the main mix/effects bank of a Grass Valley Switcher.” It was just too much; I endured the stares of those around me as I got over this unexpected juxtaposition of my world with that one so far away. I had been promoted to Chief Engineer at WIS Radio by the time that Star Wars was released, so at the first opportunity, I called Tom the Chief Engineer over at TV to warn him to keep that switcher secured less the Galactic Empire grab it to build the Death Star.

Then there were those “blasters” that Lea, Han and Luke employed in their battle against the Imperial Troopers. Something about the way they sounded seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it; at least not immediately.

A couple of weeks later, on a routine inspection of the WIS Radio tower field, I noticed a mud dauber’s nest on one the guy wires to the three tower array. Not wanting to promote the invasion of stinging pests to an area where I worked, I pulled out a small ball – peen hammer and knocked the nest off the guy wire. There was that sound again, that blaster sound. “KaPoeeew! Could it be? A couple more test pings later and I was convinced that at least part of the sound of a Star Wars blaster came from someone striking the steel guy wire of a radio tower. I’m sure that rabbit observing me from the edge of the field was wondering what was so funny as again I was lost to laughter.

It has been a never ending source of amazement to me that those special effects that marked a sea – state change in the movies included a couple of things that were part of my day to day world. This fact did not diminish my admiration for the special effect team that produced Star Wars, often ranked as one of the best films of all time and was preserved as part of the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. What goes around, comes around. Oh MY!

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